WASHINGTON – It was an extraordinarily dramatic scene, even for Congress: three Peace Corps volunteers raped while serving overseas, along with the mother of a fourth who was murdered in Benin, complaining to lawmakers about one of the government's most revered agencies.
Their theme was similar: The Peace Corps, which happens to be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, did little to train its workers about how to avoid or deal with violent attacks. And it reacted insensitively and unhelpfully in the aftermath of the crimes, they said.
"I want the young women who go into the Peace Corps today to be protected," said Carol Marie Clark, who testified Wednesday that she joined the Peace Corps in 1984 at age 22 in Nepal and was raped and impregnated by the program's director there.
"If anything happens to them, I want those women to be treated with compassion and respect," said Clark, now a teacher in rural North Carolina. "They should be heard, supported and healed, not blamed, reprimanded or ignored."
The women's emotional accounts prompted Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams, appearing at the same hearing, to apologize for neglecting what he called his agency's top priority: the health and safety of its volunteers. He said the agency has already taken steps like writing guidelines about how to respond to sexual crimes, hiring a crime victims' advocate and consulting with outside groups about additional steps they can take.
"The Peace Corps has not always been sufficiently responsive, compassionate or sensitive to victims of crime and their families," Williams told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "It is heartbreaking to learn, and I apologize for any additional pain the agency has inflicted on our volunteers."
No partisan divides were visible as lawmakers on the committee spoke of pursuing legislation that might take steps like improve training of volunteers and their managers abroad for preventing and responding to crimes.
"Your testimony will change the way business is being done in the Peace Corps," Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., told the witnesses.
The hearing was held against a backdrop of huge federal deficits that have set Congress on a hunt for budget cuts. Though no lawmakers suggested that the witnesses' stories provided a rationale for trimming the Peace Corps' requested $440 million budget for next year, some who testified Wednesday said they hoped that wouldn't happen.
"I'd be devastated if my testimony were used to stop Peace Corp funding," said Dr. Karestan Chase Koenen, one of the witnesses.
The Associated Press generally does not publish the names of rape victims, but the women at Wednesday's hearing testified openly to the committee and used their names freely.
The Peace Corps has sent over 200,000 Americans to serve in 139 countries since its founding in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Currently, more than 8,600 volunteers are at work in 77 nations.
According to Peace Corps figures, volunteers reported more than 1,000 sexual assaults from 2000 to 2009, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes. A 2010 report by the Peace Corps' inspector general found that when compared with crime statistics gathered by the United Nations from 86 countries, Peace Corps volunteers suffered higher rates of rape and burglary than every nation reporting.
Catherine Lois Puzey told the lawmakers that her daughter, Catherine "Kate" Puzey of Cumming, Ga., was killed in March 2009 after she complained by email to Peace Corps managers about a local man who worked with the volunteers — who has since been held as a suspect in the crime. She said that her daughter was given no training in how to handle such problems and that the confidentiality of the email was breached, endangering her.
After her daughter was killed, she said, the Peace Corps notified the family in a phone call that provided no details, shared little information about her death over the next few months and stopped communicating with them completely after four months. Only the family's persistence and pressure from an investigation by ABC News resulted in their getting more information, she said.
"We feel we deserve total transparency and a formal apology for any actions that contributed to her death," Puzey said.
Jessica Smochek was 23 in 2004 when she became a Peace Corps volunteer in Bangladesh.
She said that initially, she was often groped and harassed, but the Peace Corps refused to send pepper spray or move her to a safer village. Finally, she said, a group of men raped her at knifepoint.
The Peace Corps medical officer who later examined her took no evidence, she said. When she finally left, she said, she was warned not to tell colleagues what had happened and to blame her departure on a need to have wisdom teeth removed. She was flown back to Washington, where she met with a counselor who, she said, required her to write a list of things she had done wrong, such as going out alone after 5 p.m.
"I felt belittled and blamed," Smochek, who lives in Washington, D.C., told the committee.
Also testifying was Koenen, a native of Pompton Plains, N.J., who the Peace Corps sent to Niger in 1991. She said she was raped there in December that year and was treated insensitively by the Peace Corps when she was sent back to Washington, including by a male gynecologist who told her to stop being hysterical.
Koenen is now a public health professor at Columbia University, teaching psychological trauma.